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Role of upper-most crustal composition in the evolution of the Precambrian ocean-atmosphere system

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-19, 17:50 authored by Ross LargeRoss Large, Indrani MukherjeeIndrani Mukherjee, Zhukova, I, Stephen CorkreyStephen Corkrey, Stepanov, A, Leonid Danyushevsky

Recent research has emphasized the potential relationships between supercontinent cycles, mountain building, nutrient flux, ocean–atmosphere chemistry and the origin of life. The composition of the Upper-Most Continental Crust (UMCC) also figures prominently in these relationships, and yet little detailed data on each component of this complex relationship has been available for assessment.

Here we provide a new set of data on the trace element concentrations, including the Rare Earth Elements (REE), in the matrix of 52 marine black shale formations spread globally through the Archean and Proterozoic. The data support previous studies on the temporal geochemistry of shales, but with some important differences. Results indicate a change in provenance of the black shales (upper-most crustal composition), from more mafic in the Archean prior to 2700 Ma, to more felsic from 2700 to 2200 Ma, followed by a return to mafic compositions from 2200 to 1850 Ma. Around 1850 to 1800 Ma there is a rapid change to uniform felsic compositions, which remained for a billion years to 800 Ma. The shale matrix geochemistry supports the assertion that the average upper-most continental source rocks for the shales changed from a mix of felsic, mafic and ultramafic prior to 2700 Ma to more felsic after 1850 Ma, with an extended transition period between. The return to more mafic UMCC from 2200 to 1850 Ma is supported by the frequency of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs) and banded iron formations, which suggest a peak in major mantle-connected plume events and associated Fe-rich hydrothermal activity over this period. Support for the change to felsic UMCC around 1850 Ma is provided by previous geological data which shows that felsic magmas, including, A-type granites and K–Th–U-rich granites intruded vast areas of the continental crust, peaking around 1850 Ma and declining to 1000 Ma.

The implications of this change in UMCC are far reaching and may go some way to explain the distinct features of the Boring Billion (1800–800 Ma). Firstly, because mafic–ultramafic rocks contain significantly higher levels of the bio-essential nutrient elements (e.g. Fe, P, Ni, Cr, Co, Cu, Se, Mn, Zn) compared with felsic rocks, the flux of macro- and micro-nutrients to the ocean would have decreased significantly post 1850 Ma. This would have contributed to a drop in productivity and a drop in atmosphere O2 as suggested by the marine pyrite proxy. In addition, a change from mafic to felsic dominant composition of the UMCC post 1850 Ma, would have led to a decrease in the erosive flux of Ca and Mg to the ocean, affecting the oceanic carbonate equilibrium and likely contributing to a rise in atmosphere CO2.

On this basis, we speculate that the commencement of the middle Proterozoic, commonly known as the Boring Billion period from 1800 to 800 Ma, marks the start of an extended time in Earth's evolution when the UMCC became dominated by felsic rocks, particularly K–U–Th–anorogenic granites. This led to a period of anomalously low concentrations of bio-essential trace elements, but elevated REE, U, Th, Pb, Tl, Rb/Al and K/Na in the oceans.


Publication title

Earth and Planetary Science Letters








School of Natural Sciences


Elsevier Science Bv

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